Beneath years of dust and fossilised spare part boxes, a pair of Triumph Heralds sit forlornly between a breeze-block garage wall and the metal casing of a former paint spray booth. Five more Heralds and a Vitesse occupy the main floorspace, a Dolomite Sprint and Herald-based MG TF-like Gentry are parked within the booth.
Automobilia laden shelves, motoring photographs and posters cover the walls. An adjoining room contains tottering piles of car magazines and books alongside numerous ancient bicycles and the component parts of a large train set. A second room provides an office for the owner of this eclectic treasure trove from which he conducts his business which is, incidentally, totally unrelated to the motor trade.
This former commercial garage once stood by the side of a major trans-Pennine road and enjoyed good business, but when bypassed and starved of passing trade it fell into disuse. Subsequently it was bought by a lifelong devotee of all things Triumph, Heralds in particular, as a place to store part of his collection, the remainder being located in a nearby village and farm buildings. Wishing to remain anonymous, lest Nick Mason or Jay Kay discover his much-loved cache, he shall be known as Monsieur Poisson, a lovely fellow, good pal and true British motoring eccentric.
Car collecting takes many forms on any number of scales. The Schlumpf brothers created a secret collection of immense size and value in their Mulhouse textile factory, while Jay Leno’s even larger collection is more openly housed in vast hangers at Burbank Airport in California.
But for every Schlumpf and Leno there are thousands of far more modest collectors, of which M Poisson is one. Like many, he didn’t set out to be a collector. He bought stuff, kept on buying, and never sold anything. Passing a scrapyard containing a Herald or Vitesse guarded by a snarling Alsatian, or ignoring an advertisement for same, was rarely an option, and so the collection grew. Hardly any of his cars run, and those which do run only sporadically and are not to be relied upon to reach a destination.
Before becoming self-employed, Poisson used both a Herald and a Gentry for his daily commute, and soon became on intimate terms with the stout yeomen of the Automobile Association. Indeed, so familiar did they become, the club declined his membership renewal. Therefore friends were somewhat surprised to hear of an intention to drive to Le Mans in the Gentry, and then stunned to learn of the open red Noddyesque car’s uneventful return trip. Perhaps all it needed was a long run.
Briefly, this love affair with ‘classic’ British cars extended to the ownership of a 1968 Jaguar 240, which almost deposited a work colleague onto a grass verge during the enthusiastic negotiation of a roundabout when a rear door flew open unexpectedly. The Jag also had other tricks up its sleeve, including catching fire in an office car park. Eventually, even M Poisson could take no more, and sold it on eBay to a gullible transvestite, as one does.
In reflective moments, this lover of all things Triumph will gaze out through a rain-stained window across bleak Yorkshire moorland and consider the wisdom of his obsession. Might it not be better to sell all these inert Triumph bodyshells, engines, gearboxes and a thousand ancillaries in exchange for a nicely restored TR3A and a reliable modern daily driver?
But then a pair of seats, a set of wheels, a headlamp or a speedometer comes on the market, and is added to the trove. Occasionally the odd part, or even an entire car, is reluctantly sold – only to a deserving fellow enthusiast, you understand. Yet the proceeds are barely trousered before another tempting Triumph purchase is made.
On one occasion a ‘sensible’ piece of everyday transport was acquired in the form of a Volkswagen Passat Estate, but this made Monsieur P unhappy. “It’s so boring. It never goes wrong,” he complained, “I always get to places on time. Where’s the fun in that?”
Most certainly the anonymous VW was a contrast to the Giovanni Michelotti designed Herald, launched in 1959 to a receptive British audience starved of flair. For a brief period in the sixties it was a fashionable car to own, and quite stylish for its day. With separate body and chassis, the one bolted to the other, the whole of the front could be hinged forward to allow full access to the engine, and with every panel capable of being unbolted, the original four-cylinder saloon easily spawned coupe, convertible, estate and van derivatives.
The more powerful six-cylinder Vitesse saloon and convertible followed. Triumph Spitfire and GT6 sports cars were also based on the Herald, while the car’s versatile running gear helped form the basis of many ‘specials’ of the time.
With rack-and-pinion steering and a London taxi-rivalling 25-foot (7.6-metre) turning circle, the Herald became the darling of the driving school. However, an independent ‘swing’ rear axle arrangement, causing the rear wheels to tuck in and loose grip under certain not entirely uncommon circumstances, was a notable suspension design flaw. It is a measure of Standard-Triumph’s levels of customer care that this disturbing characteristic was not addressed until late in the Herald’s life due to the cost of doing so.
It has been written that the overall emissions resulting from a car’s manufacture, taking into account the extraction of metal and the manufacture of rubber, tools and machinery, plus the transportation of the finished product to market, frequently halfway across the world, is similar to that vehicle’s exhaust emissions over its lifetime. Occasionally even higher. Yet short-term car ownership is encouraged by cheap finance, leasing deals and scrappage offers, making way for the next big thing.
Electric cars may be the future, but they are unlikely to become enduring classics, devoid as they are of such important sensory stimulants as noise and smell. Therefore further scrappage awaits, particularly as batteries have relatively short lives.
So here’s the thing. While devotion to a once innovative but flawed British motor car to the point of obsession appears foolhardy, the devotee to be pitied yet tolerated as one gladly does of true eccentrics, Monsieur Poisson’s approach to the continued use of old cars might just be the more sustainable, not that this will be welcome news to the motor industry.